One Foot Forward: Productivity in our Weakness

Recently, I came across this quote in an article:

Overall, the vast majority of your life’s results comes…from small behaviors, repeated thousands of times over the decades.

I thought the quote encapsulated something I had been thinking about for a while, namely, the importance of our habits. Most important goals in life cannot be reached quickly or all at once. They require time and good habits, wherein we work steadily towards an end, accomplishing a little each day. We chop bit by bit at the metaphorical tree until it comes crashing down. Time by itself, without good habits, will accomplish nothing for us. You will not get your degree, or get married, or get the job you want, simply by waiting and letting time pass by. Unless you find a way to move forward, you will stay exactly where you are.

I’m not surprised that in the past few years, I’ve seen a surge of interest in the idea of productivity among Christians and non-Christians alike. We might loosely define productivity as optimizing your habits so we can move more efficiently towards where we want to go. If we will not get anywhere without good habits, it makes sense that we should focus our energy and efforts on improving those habits to be more productive.

I see talk of productivity all over the place. There  are viral videos, youtube channels, websites, books, each telling me the latest life hack, or how to optimize my morning routine, or how to study more efficiently, and so on. Telling me how to streamline my habits to fell the massive trees in my life. On the one hand, I’m extremely grateful for these resources and how they’ve helped me to work more efficiently. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that I can often have an unbalanced perspective on productivity which can be dangerous.

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What do I mean? As the pressures to be responsible mount in post-grad life, it’s been tempting for me to look toward productivity, not God, as my savior. It’s been easy for me to see productivity as truly practical and faith as idealistic and not really useful. After all, I see Christians who know God’s word, who have sincere faith, and who have godly character, yet are caught in cycles of unproductive habits. Despite their faith, they struggle mightily. Conversely, I see Christians and non-Christians with effective habits. They are the ones with organized lives and good reputations. They are the ones who seem happiest. And so, I think to myself: “Faith is good, but productivity, that is what really has power. That is what takes you to where you want to go. If I could just maximize my habits I could have a picture perfect life too.”

But this is deadly mindset. The danger for some is that they succeed in being productive. The temptation for them is to trust in themselves that, even in Christian things, what really makes them successful is their own ability to manage their lives. The danger for people like me who aren’t so good at being productive is that we are crushed by our failures. Productivity can be a cruel master. If you reach the end of your day with a crossed out to-do list, you feel accomplished and hopeful. But on the many days where you don’t, you feel crushed. You feel like a failure. Like everyone is passing you by. The massive tree stands before you, reminding you that you have so far left to go and today you didn’t even make a dent.

How can we find a balanced view of productivity? We cannot cast productivity and our habits aside and focus solely on theology. Productivity is the way we get things done. Nor can we focus solely on productivity. We need an understanding of God which informs and enables our productivity. An understanding that strengthens people like me to be more productive, but also not to trust in productivity to bring ultimate joy. 

One Foot Forward

We often imagine productivity as something neutral and non-spiritual. You just do things. You wake up early so you have time before work to do personal projects. You get off of facebook and study. You plan out your schedule. In one sense, that’s true. You don’t have to be a Christian to do any of those things and there are tons of hyper-effective non-Christians. That’s part of what is so attractive about productivity. There’s no mystery. The steps to a better life and a better you are right in front of you. You just need to do them.

Yet, as anyone who struggles with productivity will attest, there are deep-rooted spiritual issues we must confront if we are to change our habits. At the forefront is fear. When we look at the long journey ahead, and the mountains we must climb and the valleys we must cross, it is easy to lose heart. We are further discouraged when we see how much further our peers are along the path, or when we contemplate how much time we have wasted and how many bad decisions we have made.

Why do we keep procrastinating? Why can’t I stop scrolling through social media and focus for a half-hour? Why does my heart react so violently when I try to do what I need to do? Taking one step forward – that is, changing an ingrained bad habit for even one day – may seem small and trivial, but it often takes all our resolve. Why? Because taking one step reminds us of the whole journey ahead and everything it will take. It’s much easier to procrastinate; to distract ourselves so we don’t have to face how far we have left to go and how much we have failed.

(Paul Maxwell wrote an article called “The Complicated Life of Lazy Boys” for Desiring God that I thought was so insightful. In it, he talks about the 5 cycles of unproductivity that we can become trapped in, and the spiritual reasons underlying them. If you have time, I highly recommend you taking a look at it, as well as the follow up article on rest.) 

How does Gospel address the fear behind our bad habits? It tells us that because of Christ, the all-powerful God stands behind us. And though the journey ahead may seem impossible, our God is strong and he is able to do the impossible. And even though there seem to be so many dangers and snares along the way, our God is sovereign and will guide us through. Be strong and courageous, the Gospel tells us, do not be in fear or in dread because the Lord your God goes with you.

Those are massive truths, but, if I’m honest, they often feel small in the moment, crowded out by the shadows of the mountains looming ahead. For those with weak faith like me, my encouragement is this: just put one foot forward. It’s okay if you feel weak. It’s okay if you feel you don’t have enough strength to survive the journey. It’s okay because you don’t!

Let me refer back to beautiful quote from a previous post. It’s written in the context of marriage and singleness, but I think it fits well with this idea of taking one step forward:

If the thought of enduring your marriage or lack of marriage for the rest of your life is daunting, it is because God doesn’t hand out grace in a lifetime supply. He provides it one day at a time. If you feel like God has not given you the capacity to love your spouse for a lifetime, that’s because he hasn’t. But he has given you exactly what you need to be loving today. Furthermore, God has not given celibates the grace to bear a lifetime of solitude. But he will give you what you need to make it through this day.

…God will give us what we need, but he will not give it to us until we need it. He didn’t give the Israelites enough food to last through forty years in the wilderness; he gave them manna one day at a time. None of us has a lifelong stockpile of grace, but we can look forward to God’s faithfulness over a lifetime, offered to us one day at a time.

What does it mean to have courage? What does it mean to have steadfastness in faith? Courage is not always slaying the dragon. It is not always big and heroic. Steadfastness is not a constant spiritual high. Rather, we could say that courage and steadfastness come from learning to pray “give us this day our daily bread” in good times and bad, when our faith feels strong or when it sinks out of our sight. It is taking the manna that God gives and taking one step forward – changing that bad habit just once – and then by God’s grace, taking another step. And doing that over and over again for a lifetime.

We could amend our initial quote about productivity to look like this: overall, the vast majority of your life’s results comes…from small behaviors, each one enabled by God strength and sustained by God’s grace, repeated thousands of times over the decades.  I think that’s a profound and beautiful picture of productivity in weakness.

One Solid Hope

Even as we seek to move forward one step at a time by God’s grace, there will be many days when we will not be productive. Many times when we will look back over our day, and see that we have accomplished nothing of real value, because we were lazy or because we were overwhelmed by worries. Times when all will see are the replays of our sin – our outbreaks of anger or our failures in purity or the callousness of our hearts towards God and others.

What do you do when you reach the end of the day and you realize it was utterly unproductive? What do you do when as you sit on your bed feeling overwhelmed and wondering where the strength will come from to face tomorrow? In times like those, rest in your one solid hope. Remember that your hope is not in your goals – the future career, or relationship, or ministry position you are working towards. None of those things can bring you ultimate and lasting joy. Your hope is not in your efforts to reach those goals. It is not in your productivity. You are not loved and accepted or worthwhile on the basis of what you have done or failed to do today. Your hope is in Jesus. The one who embraced the cross, despising the shame, so that we might know and love him, even as we are known and loved by him. He is the goal and we have all we need in him.

…for we walk by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:7 ESV)

 

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The Hope for Our Helplessness

This is the last post in a series about cynicism and the Christian life. In part 1, we saw how we adopt cynicism to protect ourselves from the helplessness we feel. In part 2 we saw why this strategy fails miserably. In this post, I want to look at how Jesus holds out a better hope to the hurting cynic.

Hyouka

Hyouka is insightful in identifying and expressing the pain of helplessness. But the show offers little in the way of a solution. For the most part, it is content that we understand that Hyouka exists and that it is all around us. It is enough that the quiet cries of the hurting, so long unheard, can be discovered for a moment by the four friends and us, the audience.

To its credit, Hyouka does give us a helpful insight that we can apply to the Christian life. It commends a caring curiosity to us. Oreki begins the show as a mystery solving machine, who takes in details and spits out solutions. But, through the influence of Chitanda, he begins solving mysteries to learn more about the stories of others. Oreki’s growth calls us to likewise examine the small details, not for the glory of being clever, but to see and sympathize with the pain that lies below the surface for so many.

But while that is an admirable reminder, it still cannot fill the gaping holes of helplessness all around us. The show’s best case scenario is that observant and caring individuals seek out the hurting. But, if we’re honest, how many people can do this in real life? How many are observant enough to notice the small clues of the pain we hide? And of those people, how many are caring  to dig the full story out of us? My guess is you won’t find many of these compassionate geniuses. And if you’re waiting for one to come seek you out, you’re probably in for a disappointment.

Even if you do have such friends, it’s still not enough. Friends can be there for you for a span of time, but what happens in the hours, days, and years afterwards when the quiet pain is there and they have long since moved on? Or what happens when they fail you because they are wrestling with the same helplessness themselves?

The truth is that unless we have a Sherlock-esque eye and a large amount of time, we’ll miss most of the helplessness around us. And we should not be surprised when our friends and family fail to see ours in the busyness of their work, family, and personal issues.

What then is the Christian hope for helplessness? How does Jesus give us strength to reclaim our longing and fight back against cynicism? Here are three (of many) ways that Jesus offers us hope:

I. Jesus knows and loves us 

In the first post we noted that Hyouka results from a desire to conceal and reveal. We are ashamed by our weakness; that we still struggle for such small reasons. And we are ashamed of our sin; that we are not always sympathetic victims, but often selfish and cruel. Yet, at the same time, we are miserable and desperately long for someone to share in our pain without laughing at or leaving us.

Jesus knows us. Oreki and his friends would have to sift through the tiniest of clues to fully understand the what and why of our turmoil. But Jesus sees straight into our hearts (Jn 2:24-25).  He knows everything about us, down to the tiniest detail (Mt 10:30) . He knows what we long for and what we need, even before we ask (Mt 6:8). He knows our frame that we are but dust (Ps 103:14). He understands us even when we can’t find the words to cry out for help (Rom 8:26). And he will always be there because he  has promised to never leave nor forsake us (Deut 31:6).

Jesus fulfills our longing to be known and loved like no one else can. In the words of Tim Keller, Jesus alone can “know us to the bottom and love us to the sky”. Our limitations and sin make us feel afraid to be known and unworthy to be loved. But Jesus has borne the cross for our sins and covered us with his righteousness, so that God invites us in as his beloved children. And Jesus will not cast us away for any fault in our appearance or defect in our personality. Our Savior is also our Creator. He formed us in the womb and in his eyes we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps 139).

And finally, Jesus is the true and proper object of our longing. He is better than cynicism’s stability, or Oreki’s genius, or Mayaka’s affection. He has fullness of joy. He is our source of life. He is the one whom we were made to walk with in relationship, and if we have him, we have all we need. The love of Jesus helps us finally put to death Satoshi’s self-hatred and resignation. Jesus knows us. He gives us the love we need. And he is the one we are made to love.

II. All thing come from the Father’s loving hand- 

Cynicism rests on the assumption that we are alone in a cruel universe in which things just naturally go wrong. But the Bible tells us that our lives are in the hands of a loving Father who works all things – joy and pain – for our good. In a cruel universe, it is wise not to put too much hope in your longing. But in the Christian worldview, we can place our longing in God’s hands and pursue courageously after him.

He may prosper us in our careers. He may guide us to marriage and family. He may give us fruitful ministry and friendships. Or he might withhold all of the things we want most. He might make us wait for months, years, or forever. He may give us what we want and make it different than we thought it would be. He may give us what we want and then take it away.

Yet in everything, God is generous and wise. God always gives good gifts to his children. He will do things we don’t understand, but in our confusion he will teach us to trust him more. He will take us along paths we would have never taken to lead us to places where we need to go. It is scary to be vulnerable and entrust our longings to God. It is even scarier for those who have been hurt by others in the past. But God will never disappoint us. He will show forth his wisdom and care for us even in our disappointments.The sovereign goodness of God allows weak and insecure people like me to be brave.

III.  God gives us a new community – 

Lastly, God gives us a new community where we can know and love one another. A new community built not on hobbies or circumstances but on the blood of Christ. As Christians, we have been made part of God’s family – a family different than every other. Before, we were afraid to share our sin because it was too shameful and our helplessness because it was too small. But God’s family is full of people who are sinful and hurting just like us, but who have been known and loved by Jesus. And God is at work in his family, transforming our hearts and teaching us to love as we have been loved.

This creates the possibility for a powerful new kind of friendship. It will take hard work, patience, and time. We will be hurt and discouraged in the process. But if we are willing, we can build relationships where we are fully honest with one another. Relationships where we can share both monumental tragedies and the quiet and constant aches of daily life. Where we can share both our most shameful sins and our most persistent fears. Where we are not afraid to share the same struggle week after week, but where we can also receive gentle encouragement in the truth.

Through the Gospel, we can build relationships where we no longer need to conceal because we are all loved by the King. And relationships where we no longer need to compare because we have all been gifted to serve his people and a world in need.

Conclusion:

In the end, the solution to our helplessness is not complicated. We need faith. We can live as cynics, maintain a stable sort of joy, and project a respectable Christian persona. But that would be a tragedy. Cynicism doesn’t work. It’s faithless.

But even as I write this, it’s still so hard for me to let down my guard and stand exposed before God and others. I feel so foolish and naive. I feel like I’m doing the same thing over and over again and somehow expecting a different result, when in reality I will only be punched in the gut again by a cruel and uncaring world.

And yet, I remember God has given us his Son. I remember his promise to never leave nor forsake us. I remember his past faithfulness. In light of his love and the strength of his promise, let us dare to live defiantly in the face of every obstacle and doubt and lie from the enemy that God is not good. Let us dare to be vulnerable to God and to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us dare to place our longings in His hands for him to bring to fruition or to frustrate in his sovereign wisdom.

Let us have faith to do these things, through every trial and disappointment, again and again, day after day, year after year, for a lifetime. And when our courage fails us and we fall short, let us dare to come with confidence again and again to the throne room of grace, where we will find help in our time of need.

 

 

The Allure and Insufficiency of Cynicism

This is part two of a series about cynicism and the Christian life. In yesterday’s post, I talked about the idea of ‘Hyouka’ – the silent cry for help. I focused in on one particular character named Satoshi and how he uses his cheerful cynicism to cope with his insecurities. In this post, I hope to draw some parallels between myself and Satoshi, and talk about why cynicism, while alluring, is ultimately insufficient.

Satoshi and Me

I see a lot of myself in Satoshi. Both of us have many reasons to be thankful, but we allow our insecurities to overshadow our blessings. Satoshi sees Oreki ability to benefit others with his natural genius, and despairs that he can offer so little. I see others’ ability to be fun and build relationships, or to administrate and counsel, or to push forward with resilience and ambition, and feel very small in comparison. What can I offer to others with my meager abilities? And who will find me worthy of love, respect, and friendship, or even a place in their lives? Irrational as it might be, these comparisons erode my confidence that I can find success or belonging when I engage the world.

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But while Satoshi’s cynicism stops at his relationships with others, mine extends to my relationship with God. I battle with nagging doubts that the universe is more like a cruel practical joke than a well planned story. That life is dictated more by absurdity and chaos than by the providence of a caring God. Things just go wrong.  The promises of God, if they are true, are only true for others. The loving, faithful, and active God is their God. My God is distant, only waking when he wants to take something away.

These doubts about God and others create a painful anxiety and cynicism begins looking like an attractive strategy. Cynicism guards me from the sting of disappointment by detaching my affections. Not caring gives a steadiness and stability, as well as a reprieve from constant feelings of inadequacy.

Not only that, if I’m a cheerful cynic – if I am nice, self-deprecating, and considerate – I get the added bonus of looking humble. The proud man boast in his achievements; the self-pitying man wallows in his sorrows, but the humble man and the cynic pay little attention to themselves. The difference is that the humble man truly forgets himself in his love for God and others, while the cynic expects the worst from the start and is thus prepared for any result. To the outside world, the two look the same. I can gain a reputation for humility when in reality I’ve just given up hope.

The Insufficiency of Cynicism

Cynicism promises a more secure joy and an easier way of life. But upon closer examination, cynicism destroys our joy, our courage, and our thanksgiving.

I. Cynicism destroys joy and thanksgiving

Fundamentally, cynicism fails because we’re built to care. God has created us as longing creatures and we cannot kill those longings  no matter how hard we try. We’re not strong enough. We might be able to convince ourselves we don’t care. We might even project an image of stoic confidence. But deep down, we always know that it is a lie. That our cynicism is our Hyouka – the way we’re trying miserably to cope with our frustrated desires and personal failings.

Because of this, cynicism cannot give us real joy. Satoshi tells Oreki that since he became ‘obsessed with not be obsessed with anything…every day’s been a happy day’. In one sense, Satoshi is right. Avoiding competition allows him to live in an uninterrupted stream of trivial and lighthearted victories. But Satoshi is not truly happy and he knows it. The joys he experiences are frauds – mere imitations of the real thing. Real joys don’t come easily. They require hardwork and perseverance. They involve the real risk of heartbreak, and despair. Real joys, in other words, are born from the very things Satoshi tries so desperately to avoid. Satoshi, in trying to preserve joy, unwittingly creates a false reality where no real joy can exist.

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What’s more, cynics like Satoshi cannot even enjoy the good things they do have. The cynic recognizes that he has blessings from God – be it in the form of talents, relationships, or good circumstances. But he views them with a suspicious eye. He denigrates his talents as worthless and insignificant. He sees insincerity, pity, and transience in his relationships. He sees fortunate circumstances as anomalies that might shift for the worst at any moment. The cynic cannot stop and be thankful for his blessings, because he must always protect them. Since he has no hope or courage for the future, all he can do is to desperately hold on to the good things he already has.

II. Cynicism destroys faith and courage

Not only does cynicism destroy our joy, it destroys our courage by severing the root of faith. By faith, we trust in God’s character – his goodness, his wisdom, and his sovereignty. We feel safe to place our hopes and dreams into his hands, and trust him to guide us in the best direction. This is scary because God may withhold our desires and that will hurt. But faith strengthens us to live with courage, because we believe that whatever happens will be for his glory and our good.

Cynicism instead suffocates our desire in order to spare ourselves the hurt of unmet longing.  We don’t give God the chance to let us down, and we also don’t give him the chance to show us his faithfulness. This, however, kills our courage. The more and more we do this, the harder it is to step out and trust God. We may see God’s providence in the lives of others but it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that God will work in our lives. God’s acting  will seems more like wishful thinking and less like reality.

Cynicism leads to a weak and cowardly life. The cynic has neither the self-assured confidence of the proud man or the quiet strength of the humble man. Rather he is paralyzed by his insecurity and weakness. He has no power to take a risk and step out into the unknown, because he believes all he will find is disappointment.

III. Cynicism destroys our love

Finally, cynicism hurts others and ultimately destroys our capacity to love others.  Initially, we think our cheerful aloofness is harmless. We think we can still love others as we did before. But that’s not true. Relationships are built on vulnerability and full engagement, but the cynic cuts himself off prematurely. He can function in surface level relationships, but he must disengage if they become too personal.

In the penultimate episode, Satoshi steps out of Oreki’s shadow and becomes the main focus of the story. Sadly, this episode doesn’t show his growth as a character but rather, as Nick notes, the ‘ugliest secret of the classics club – Satoshi’s self-hatred, and the way that hatred ends up expressing itself as a callousness towards the people who care about him.’

This plays out in Satoshi’s relationship with his longtime friend Mayaka. Mayaka cares deeply for Satoshi. She probably knows him better than he knows himself. And yet, she is still willing to commit herself to him. But Satoshi cannot return her affection because it would threaten the whole system he has created – his world of stable half-joys – and return him to the world of risk. It scares Satoshi to be near someone like Mayaka, who constantly lays her heart on line to be trampled on. Nearness to her exposes his disengagement for what it truly is – cowardice. And so, Satoshi clings to his cynicism and wounds Mayaka with his coldness.

Likewise, our cynicism is not harmless. We harm others by our omission – by failing to help others because we’re afraid we’ll be inadequate. We harm others by our commission – our pessimism and resignation wound those who depend on us. We distance ourselves from the messiness of relationships and accountability and run instead toward isolation, thinking we’ll be safe there. But isolation enables the worst parts of nature. At first, we may isolate ourselves because we’re afraid of being hurt. But eventually we will isolate ourselves because we’re selfish and we no longer care about others. C.S. Lewis, in his famous quote, exposes the deadly result of the cynic’s isolation:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Conclusion

This is humbling for me to write. Even now, when I look at my Christian life these past years, I wonder: have I really grown in maturity or have I just grown in cheerful cynicism? Is my joy more stable because I love Jesus and trust him more, or because I’ve learned to expect less of God and others? How much have I maintained an appearance of godliness while severing the roots of joy, courage, and faith in my life?

Cynicism is a sham. It promises protection and joy, but delivers a pathetic way of life. Yet, if not cynicism, then what? We do not adopt cynicism because we want to. We do it because the helplessness we feel is so present and real that we must find a way to cope with it. We will not put aside our cynicism unless we find something or someone to address the pain we feel. In the final post, I’ll talk about Gospel hope for those  who feel helpless. But until then, farewell!

 

 

 

Hyouka and the Cheerful Cynic

I’ve been meaning to write a post about cynicism and the Christian life for a while, but couldn’t find the right way to approach it. I finally found some inspiration from an unlikely source: an anime called Hyouka and a great series of write ups on the show from a blog called Wrong Every Time. These ignited some amateur English-major analysis of my own (which could be totally wrong), and launched some fruitful reflection on cynicism. No need to have watched the show to understand this post but beware, there will be some spoilers. Otherwise, enjoy!

Hyouka and Helplessness

Hyouka tells the story of four friends who solve mysteries together as part of the Classics Club. Oreki (third to the right) is a lazy energy-conserving genius and the main protagonist. Chitanda (far left) is his joyful and endlessly curious foil. Satoshi (far right) and Mayaka (second to the left) are Oreki’s childhood friends.

At its heart, Hyouka is a show about helplessness. ‘Hyouka’ is the title of an old club anthology and the key to the show’s first mystery. At first, it appears harmless and nondescript – the word ‘Hyouka’ simply translates to ‘Ice Cream’. But, after learning the details of how it came to be, Oreki and his friends realize Hyouka is actually a silent cry for help: ‘I Scream’.

This bit of wordplay colors and characterizes the rest of the show. Hyouka becomes a symbol for something that appears trivial, but actually reveals a person’s inward pain. Many of the subsequent mysteries follow the same pattern as the first. They begin with ordinary details, but eventually reveal someone who feels hurt or marginalized. An unfinished script, for instance, reveals a quiet author who has been pushed aside by her more outspoken classmates. A series of petty thefts reveal a web of hurt feelings, unmet wishes, and personal insecurities.

This idea of Hyouka – the silent cry for help – has stuck with me, even after I finished watching the show. Here are two observations about the idea that make it interesting and helpful to my thinking:

I. Hyouka captures the ache of ordinary helplessnessMost mysteries use dramatic crimes and character motives to captivate their audience’s attention (think CSI or Sherlock Holmes). Hyouka’s mysteries, however, are more subdued.  Characters don’t murder or kidnap others; they act out in insignificant and barely noticeable ways. They aren’t motivated by rage or pathology, but by ordinary struggles we can all relate to. Hyouka doesn’t make a big show of a mystery’s “reveal”. In fact, it hardly lingers on its characters at all. We see a brief glimpse of someone’s inner pain and then the show moves on —  to another character, another day, another mystery.

This subtlety, rather than minimizing idea of the Hyouka, more perceptively captures it. Hyouka captures ordinary helplessness – the kind we feel most often, but which can be the most difficult to explain. Ordinary helplessness, Hyouka argues, can be just as devastating as the pain of obvious tragedy. The difference is that this pain breaks you not all at once, but as a slow and constant ache. It is pain too trivial to share without feeling overdramatic, yet not drastic enough that we can’t go on. So we let it exist in the background and only hint at it to others.

II. Hyouka captures our conflicted response to helplessness The wordplay of Hyouka both conceals and reveals. It does not declare what the author really feels, nor does it hide it altogether. It’s a clue for the attentive eye. A piece of evidence that reveals the truth.

This provides an astute observation about the ways in which we respond to helplessness. When we feel helpless, we feel  a strong desire to conceal. After all, everyone else seems to have their life together and the reasons why we hurt are so mundane. Who would understand or take us seriously? Wouldn’t people think less of us for being overly sensitive?  We feel shame in showing who we truly are.

At the same time, we feel an equally strong desire to reveal. We want someone to see our pain and to understand it. Even if we don’t, at some point we have to find an outlet to let out our pent-up frustration – just as someone holding their breath must eventually exhale.

What results from these two competing desires to conceal and reveal? Hyouka – silent cries of helplessness – in all their various incarnations. In the world of Hyouka, mysteries do not come from criminal masterminds, but from the inner conflict of ordinary hurting people. Shouts for help  in small details and cryptic actions, passed over by the masses but discovered by the observant eyes of these four friends.

Satoshi the Smiling Cynic

Hyouka

As the show progresses, we see ‘Hyouka’ extend beyond the club’s mysteries into the lives of the main characters. Satoshi is Oreki’s childhood friend and one of the four members of the club. At first, he seems happy. He’s always wearing a smile, is well liked, and actively participates in school activities. As time passes, however, we learn to trust his cheerfulness less and less. Visually, he is often shown smiling while shrouded in shadows. And despite his cheerfulness, he always seems strangely detached.

In a later episode, Satoshi goes from solving mysteries to being the subject of one. From investigator to the investigated. When Oreki corners him, he finally explains the reasoning behind his false cheerfulness. Nick, at Wrong Every Time, summarizes it in this way:

Then Satoshi spills it all. “I won’t ever be the best at anything,” he says, dwarfed by snowflakes falling like bright stars. “Or rather, I’ve stopped trying to be.” Reflecting back on his middle school self, he reflects that “winning was boring. So I got tired of it. I became obsessed with not being obsessed with anything. Since then, every day’s been a happy day!…” These words ring completely hollow to our understanding of Satoshi…

Satoshi wants to be a person who can truly engage with the world, but his fear is much stronger than his hope, and so this is how he rationalizes his refusal to engage. He says that winning is “boring,” and tells himself he’s not actually in engaged in anything – but all this really means is that he’s still committed to the adolescent mindset of either being a winner or a loser. Satoshi can’t see value just in the attempt – like Kouchi from the manga club, he doesn’t even want to try if he knows someone will be better than him…

Satoshi has many things going for him. He is gifted with a computer-like memory. He has friends who love and care deeply about him. But none of those things provide any comfort because he is constantly measuring himself against Oreki. Time after time, he puts forth his best effort to equal or surpass his friend, placing his self-worth on the line to be validated by a win or crushed by a loss. And each time, lazy Oreki, with a yawn of bored indifference, outperforms him. Satoshi is brilliant, but Oreki is blessed with extraordinary unreachable genius.

Every failure reminds Satoshi of his mediocrity. It reminds him that no matter how hard he tries, his best efforts will never match Oreki’s and he is helpless to do anything about it. This is a crushing realization and Satoshi applies it not only to his relationship with Oreki, but to all of his life. He loses confidence in his ability to engage the world. He no longer trusts that there is a relationship between hard work and worthwhile results.

So what does he do instead? He becomes a cynic – though he won’t admit it to himself or to Oreki. He stops competing. He avoids any risk that reminds him of his limitations. He distances himself from everything he cares about. And he does it, not with a scowling face like we might expect, but with a smile.

His cheerful persona acts as a defense against feelings of failure. It allows him to avoid the ups and downs of competition and the sting of losing, and instead to create a stable kind of joy. He can still enjoy the good things – friendships, lighthearted contests – while ignoring everything else.

We’ll return to the merits and demerits of Satoshi’s chosen strategy in the next post. But for now, I want to end this post by noting the close connection between helplessness and cynicism for Satoshi. When we look closely, we see that Satoshi’s smile and the cynical philosophy behind it are his ‘Hyouka’. They are the way he tries to conceal pain – from other and even from himself. But they are also the way he reveals his pain. Through his smile, Oreki and we the viewers gain a truer insight and understanding into his character.

Can you relate at all to the idea of Hyouka? Can you sympathize with how Satoshi feels? I sure can.  All of this might still seem odd and irrelevant, especially for those of you haven’t watched the show. In tomorrow’s post I’ll use some of these concepts and ideas to talk about cynicism in my own life. But until then, farewell!

 

 

Wee Little Zaccheus and Me

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see.

Maybe it’s the children’s song, but I’ve always pictured Zaccheus as a laughable cartoon character. Luke tells us that he was so “small in stature” he had to scurry up a tree just to see Jesus. When I imagine the scene in my head, it seems comical and a bit ridiculous.

I can’t help but wonder if deep-down Zaccheus thought of himself as a joke too. I imagine him as someone who longed to be noticed, but whom no one really took seriously. Maybe that’s what drove him up the ranks to become the powerful but hated chief tax collector. Perhaps he said to himself: “Yes, there may be stigma and ridicule, but at least there is power and wealth. And maybe, at last, I’ll be able to find that sense of significance I’ve longed for.”

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Yet, in Luke 19, something drove him to climb that tree to see the Savior passing through. Perhaps he had reached a dead-end in his search for significance. His job had given him power and wealth. But it also led him into a lifestyle of sin. Further, it had not given him the significance he desired, but drove him further into isolation.

Rich Tax Collector Zaccheus was as pathetic as ever. He was still “wee litle” Zaccheus – someone who was, in every sense of the word, small.

What do you do when you feel small?

I see a lot of myself in Zaccheus. I feel small most of the time too. Like Zaccheus, I find myself flailing to ‘stand tall’ among my peers or hiding away when I feel like I’m still the same “wee little” Chris I’ve always been.

How much of our lives are spent trying to make something out of ourselves? “At all costs, I will not be pathetic!” we say, with shaky and unsure voices. We try to build ourselves up so we’ll be successful in our careers, worthy of romantic love, and worthy of admiration from those we love.

However, any search for significance apart from God is sin and leads only to more sin. Our sin may not be as blatant or stigmatized as Zaccheus’ tax-collecting, but we are building our own nicely decorated towers of Babel. Ultimately, these searches are idolatrous and disastrous. There is no significance to be found outside of Jesus. And so, like Zaccheus, we find ourselves just as lonely,  insecure, and empty as we were before.

Weakness is the Way to Jesus

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What if, instead of trying constantly to make something of ourselves, we let our smallness drive us up the tree to catch a glimpse of the Savior?

The wonderful truth of the Gospel is that Jesus welcomes the pathetic, helpless, and small. “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today,” Jesus says.

Zaccheus had just wanted to see Jesus. Yet, here was Jesus treating him like someone who mattered- like someone significant. Him! The man who everyone looked away from in disgust when they passed him on the street; the liar, the thief, the pathetic joke of a life. Out of everyone, Jesus wanted to stay at his house.

The truth that Jesus came not for the well, but the sick – not for the righteous, but for tax collectors like him – moved Zaccheus so deeply that  he declared, suddenly and joyfully: ‘I will give everything back!’ In a moment, he left behind his old life and everything it represented.

“Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham,” said the Savior, “for the Son ofMan came to seek and save the lost”

Compare Zaccheus to the rich young ruler who had come to Jesus just one chapter earlier. If Zaccheus was the kid in high school who ate alone at lunch, the rich young ruler was that rare guy with the distinction of being genuinely nice and a handsome rich stud at the same time.

While the rich young ruler came to Jesus sincerely, he also came confidently. He was not in the tree like Zaccheus. He was not ignored and ostracized by the crowds. Everyone viewed him as an asset. A successful and godly man whom Jesus would be lucky to have as a follower. Subtly, maybe even subconsciously, the rich young ruler believed that about himself too.

And so, when Jesus told him to keep the commandments, he instinctively answered: “All these I have kept from my youth”, not realizing what a bold and proud statement that really was. He had none of Zaccheus’ brokenness. He did not know what it felt like to be unclean, ignored, lonely, and utterly pathetic.

Jesus, to the everyone’s surprise, does not invite him to dinner. He responds with a backbreaking request for radical generosity and turns the rich young ruler away.

Weakness is just weakness

I need to be careful when I talk, think, and write about Jesus and weakness.

My sinful hearts wants to use Christianity as revenge for the losers. Christianity flips the script! Now weak and insignificant people like me and Zaccheus matter, and the people I always envied (like the rich young ruler) are on the bottom. I co-opt my weakness and turn it into a badge of righteousness to search for significance in the same old ways.

Look at me! Look how weak I am, but how I still depend on Jesus. I’m honest and real, yet I’m not trying to present myself as strong. Aren’t I wise? Humble? Worthy of admiration and respect?”

But weakness is just weakness. There is nothing special about weakness. Weakness feels pathetic because it is pathetic. And weakness only matters if it leads to repentance and joy in Jesus.

Zaccheus’ weakness made him realize he was the worst of sinners. It  taught him the spirit of the tax collector, who stood far off with lowered eyes, beating his breast and saying , “God be merciful to me a sinner!” Weakness taught Zaccheus that he belonged in the tree, not at the front of the crowds. He knew Jesus had every reason to pass him by. Jesus should have passed him by.

That’s why Jesus’ grace affected him so deeply. When Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions, it seemed ridiculous him. But Zaccheus does just that in his joy, without even having been commanded by Jesus. It was the fruit of repentance. He couldn’t believe that Jesus would call someone so weak, so insignificant, and so sinful down from the tree.

Would we embrace weakness instead of trying so hard to show that we’re not weak. Would we let our smallness lead us up the tree to see Jesus. And we will find joy, when he invites us down to follow him.